FDR Pushed for the Rescue of Jewish Refugees, Newly Revealed Documents Show

SEPTEMBER 2009 — To his critics, Franklin Roosevelt’s response to the Holocaust was epitomized by his June 1939 decision to refuse political asylum to more than 900 passengers aboard the German ocean liner St. Louis. The passengers, nearly all of them Jewish refugees, had the lights of Miami in sight when the United States government refused them permission to disembark. Roosevelt did not respond to pleas for help. The ship returned to Europe, and the Holocaust claimed more than a third of those who returned to the Continent.

Because of this, Roosevelt has been depicted as indifferent to the fate of the Jews. According to a new book, Refugees and Rescue, though, it is a reputation he does not deserve. As revealed in the previously unpublished diary of James McDonald, the man who oversaw Roosevelt’s wartime advisory committee on refugees, FDR did try to help Jewish refugees before the war.

A year before the St. Louis affair, FDR prodded the State Department to allow tens of thousands of Jews to immigrate from Germany and Austria, and developed plans to turn the Western democracies into a huge safety net. “Roosevelt was a man of grand vision who wanted to resettle a much larger number of refugees,” writes Richard Breitman, an American University historian who helped edit the volume. “[But] his willingness to take action varied sharply according to political and military circumstances.”

As early as the spring of 1938, according to McDonald’s papers, Roosevelt began talking about a plan to rescue millions of Jews from Nazi Germany and divide them between a group of 10 democratic countries. Later that year, Roosevelt promised McDonald that he would ask Congress to appropriate $150 million to help resettle refugees around the world. In May 1939, only a month before the St. Louis incident, McDonald was present when FDR warned his advisors that the situation of the Jews in Germany was growing critical. “It was not so much a question of money,” McDonald recorded the president saying, “as it was of actual lives.”

McDonald, the high commissioner for refugees for the League of Nations in the 1930s, had no tolerance for foot-dragging bureaucrats or timid world leaders. He had resigned from his post in 1935 over the organization’s unwillingness to help Jews in Nazi Germany. And he had no reason to make excuses for Roosevelt. Which, historians say, is what makes his decision to join the president’s advisory committee on refugees in 1938—and his impressions of a president he believed was quite concerned about the fate of European Jews—so important.

So why didn’t Roosevelt act? McDonald blamed the intractable politics of the time. In early 1939, with the St. Louis about to set sail, FDR refused to endorse a bill that would have brought 20,000 German Jewish children into the United States outside the immigration quota. From McDonald’s perspective, FDR saw the bill as a mere gesture—not a solution. In the face of strong public opposition and an intransigent State Department, both Roosevelt and McDonald also recognized that the bill was doomed to fail. “The problem was that most of the initiatives to resettle refugees…proved impossible, met substantial resistance abroad, or developed very slowly,” Breitman and his coeditors write. “The outbreak of war destroyed most of what opportunities remained.”

By 1940, Roosevelt abandoned his major resettlement efforts when he was forced to change his focus from humanitarian action to national security. That transition disappointed McDonald so much that he voted for Wendell Willkie in that year’s presidential election.

Nonetheless, after FDR won, McDonald stayed on as the president’s adviser, doing what he could to help Europe’s Jews. “We definitely have a sense that McDonald felt he and Roosevelt were, if not on the same page, at least in the same chapter,” Breitman told World War II. “He eventually realized that no one had the power to stop the Holocaust.” Sadly, that included the president.

20 Responses

  1. Terence

    A bit rough on Roosevelt. There was no holocaust in 1938 and the Nazis had yet to occupy the bulk of Europe. In 1938 Jews were being rendered stateless in Germany, not being bumped-off.
    “Roosevelt’s plan” was the Evian conference that resulted in effectively—nothing. No country ( except the Dominican Republic) wanted to let any more Jews in.
    It was the US Congress who had fixed the immigration quotas for ‘Jews’ and Congress that turned down the Wagner-Rodgers Bill ( to allow 20,000 Jews into the US) due to US anti-semitism. Even the Zionist organisations did not push for refugee Jews to gain entry to America as their political agenda called for them to go to Palestine despite the British immigation quota of 15,000 per year.
    10,000 Jewish children under the age of 17 from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia were transported to Britain though ( The Kindertransport) and fostered out to (mainly non-Jewish) British families from 1938 until the start of WW2.

  2. Jake

    All that the newly available papers make clear is that Roosevelt was amenable to resettlement of Jewish refugees – so long as the United States wasn’t their destination. He was not alone in his desire for the Jewish refugees to be someone else’s problem; it was a sentiment common among WASPs of the day, perhaps most memorably exemplified by Roosevelt’s cousin, Laura Delano Houghteling, who was the wife of the U.S. commissioner of immigration. In reference to the proposed Wagner-Rogers bill, she warned that “20,000 charming children would all too soon grow into 20,000 ugly adults.” Again and again, Roosevelt’s attitude regarding refugee resettlement was “anywhere but here”.

    McDonald’s argument that “FDR saw the bill as a mere gesture—not a solution”, is one of the most absurd attempts at apologism that I have ever encountered. Allowing inthousands of children would not be a mere “gesture” — whatever the wider issues, that would be 20,000 human lives secured, period.

    The bill would likely have faced much opposition in Congress, but it might have had a shot had the President of the United States put his weight behind it. Roosevelt, however, stayed silent, and in an internal memo, ordered his staff to take no action on the matter, sealing its doom.

    • Larry C.

      I agree completely with Jake.

      My family is not Jewish but numerous individuals worked to help them including those in Europe who wereAfried (literally) for helping. An American member of the family had personally approached Roosevelt about the St.Louis issue and learned that Roosevelt had no intention to help.

      It was no different when later he gave away all Eastern Europe to “Uncle Joe” (Stalin). He could have stood up to Stalin and not allowed the Russian to keep Eastern Europe. In fact he had Allied armies back out of areas they had taken so Stalin can have them.

      His wasp (perhaps Pro-communist) attitude had no bounds.

  3. Deborah Rosen

    I keep hearing that it was the Republicans who refused to allow the refugee ship to land from family members. Sounds like it was the Roosevelt administration, and considering the dictatorial powers assumed by Roosevelt, I can’t for a moment imagine there was anything he “couldn’t” do. I agree with Jake, blatant FDR apologetics. Interesting to learn that it is nothing new for the republicans to get the blame even when the Democrats are guilty. Not that the Republicans are above reproach, but they should only get blamed for their own actions.

    • BillH

      “considering the dictatorial powers assumed by Roosevelt, I can’t for a moment imagine there was anything he “couldn’t” do.”

      Any of thousands of history books that cover the subject of FDR’s frustration with obstructionist Republicans can help rectify your “imagine’ (learning) deficit.

      • Nick Alsace

        Ahh yes, “obstructionist Republicans” were responsible. Get a new drum . That beat is worn to death. Roosevelt knew what was going on and did nothing to stop it. Good intentions are just that, not action.

  4. H. Harrow

    Extensive diaries of James McDonald have been discovered. I hope these diaries are published. He was truly a hero of the Jewish people during WWII.

  5. leslie wilson

    my famely history goes to germany to the moose famely. sarrah paylon remarks about blood liabel was not a mistake at all. I to grew up hearing that. I also was at duc pho. I have a anger at politions useing mamoral day for a stunt.one day a year we are shadows an the brothers are alive.THE WORDS ON THE DOGTAGS give the prichers freedom to send us all to hell. what i writa is me and nobody but me. we all have our freedoms and libertys?

  6. ross

    Hey Les,
    If you don’t spell properly, it doesn’t matter what you say – people won’t take you seriously. That’s the truth, whether fair or not. The common (mis?)conception is if you can’t spell, you don’t have a good education, therefore you don’t know what you are talking about.

  7. SmokeTNT

    “FDR refused to endorse a bill that would have brought 20,000 German Jewish children into the United States outside the immigration quota.”

    You could actually just stop right there. FDR was no humanitarian by any means, thousands of people being thrown into internment camps because of their race could attest to that. No amount of revisionist history can ever trump actual history.

  8. Mike Madden

    Sorry, I don’t buy the attempted premise of the article. Roosevelt could have forced authorities to allow the St Louis to land. The fact that he supported a move to allow 20,000 Jewish children to enter the US above and beyond the standing quotas is just a red herring. It has nothing to do with his not pushing to allow the St Louis to land in the US. The US was aware of what was being done to the Jews of Germany at the time. In many ways I admire Roosevelt, but I can’t stand slavish historical revisionists who worship him and who will go to great lengths to always make him look good.
    One must always remember how Jews were viewed around the world, including the in the US.at the time in question. It wasn’t favorable but it was how the world thought in times past….and in some cases still now. Too bad our people are being taught history from today’s viewpoint and not from the viewpoints of the time. No wonder our population is so dumbed down.

  9. Alfred Moch

    During this time period, there were a number of secret missions that were conducted during World War II. There was a story that a group of seperated and/or displaced Orphan Jewish Children were spirited out of Europe. At the time and at risk, French Minister and French Patriot, Jules S. Moch, was involved with a safe house, were these and other individuals were gathered. It was reported that Eleanor Roosevelt, secretly appeared at this operation, making sure that things were going well.
    After World War II, both Moch and Roosevelt supported the adoption of The U.N. Human Rights Charter, and the establishment of The State of Israel.

  10. JJ

    FDR deserves the scorn

    He was a coward for doing this , and those poor souls who died , their blood is on his hands

  11. Amber

    The Reader’s Digest, this summer just carried a long article about one of the convoys of Jewish Children brought to the USA. 50,000 in that convoy. Some of them are still alive and they gave their accounts of the journey.

    The St.Louis. FDR put pressure on Cuba and Jews with relatives there were released. Ditto in the USA. Cordell Hull, Dem. Sec. of State, refused to admit them with out paperwork. Jews with USA relatives in the states were released as proven in the National Archives and USA Census Reports. Same as in Canada.

    FDR and Canadian officials asked England. France. Netherlands. Belgium to accept all of the Jews left on the ship as refugees and keep them safe for two months until they could enter the USA. All agreed. About half of the Jews in Europe did come to the USA after the two months, and prospered mightily there. The Jews who remained in Europe by choice, those who died in the camps were captured when Hitler’s lightening Panzer attacks ran over Europe. To blame FDR and to malign a true hero is shocking to me.

    The St. Louis returned to Germany without ONE JEW on it. Not one.

    Later the USA Army, which did not have to get involved in the War, but did so mostly through the machinations of FDR saw over a millions American men die as they drove to free the death camps.

    \Without the American Military, Jews would be bars of soap.\: Micheal Savage. Jewish. Doctor. Writer. Scientist. Radio Talk Show host. Genius. American Patriot.

    And more Jews live in the USA than in Israel. they are a small portion of the USA population but they control three seats on the USA Supreme Court, The USA has 47 Jewish Representatives and Senators in Congress. All branches of the USA MSM are owned by Jewish groups. Jewish Groups own Disneyworld..the entire Disney Corporation and much else. Hollywood for example. It is shocking to me to read this Anti America venom. Yesterday, the Prime Minister of Israel thanked the People of the USA for the billions to build the Iron Dome there…which is protecting them today.

    • SL Morris

      You are nothing but full of (redacted) and hatred towards Jews. Jew-hatred, Juden-hasse, antisemitism. Your tell, your giveaway, is your last paragraph, more hateful crap and filled with lies.

      Lie: “Jews …control three seats on the USA Supreme Court,” Bull****. The fact that three Justices happen to be Jewish does not mean that “Jews…control three seats.” It does not mean that their decisions are dictated by Jews or biased toward Jews. If you have a problem with their decision making, you are welcome to start an impeachment campaign.

      Lie: “The St. Louis returned to Germany without ONE JEW on it. Not one.” A very big subterfuge for you, how clever. While it is true that the ship returned to Germany after disembarking every last passenger, 620 people were forced to return to continental Europe and approximately 250 were slaughtered by the Germans later on. And whatever these numbers say or don’t say, they do NOTHING to rehabilitate Roosevelt’s refusal to allow entry of a single S.S. St. Louis passenger onto American soil; they do NOTHING to rehabilitate Roosevelt’s policy denying entry to European Jews fleeing Hitler.

      Lie: “millions American men die as they drove to free the death camps.” The reasons behind US entry into WW2 had nothing to do with death camps. Not a single act of the US military during that war had anything to do with disrupting the operation of death camps.

      Lie: “All branches of the USA MSM are owned by Jewish groups.”

      Lie: “Jewish Groups own Disneyworld..the entire Disney Corporation and much else.” The Walt Disney Company is a publicly traded corporation. Even (redacted) you can buy stock in Disney.

      Lie: “Hollywood for example.” C’mon, give me the names of companies. If it were within your ability to conduct research, you would easily find out that ALL of the major player corporations in Hollywood are publicly traded.

      • Heidi

        No, your response is filled with lies. Ever heard of Neal Gabler? Or Joel Stein of the LA Times, when it comes to Hollywood and who helped create it, as well as maintain it to this day?

        Do not lie, we goyim are not stupid.

  12. Alfred Moch

    During the time of The St. Louis Incident, you had members of The Congress that were, depending on their views, Pro Germany to Pro Natzi. The Government of Germany, put a lot of promotional PR about themselves out to The United States. During this time… “The Great Depression” was still raging, with levels of unemployment at an all time high. Immigration quotas were set and kept limited, due to the fear that ‘Any Immigrant’ once they entered The US, would take jobs away from Americans that were already here, regardless of who or where they came from. These and other Lobbies, influenced the policy, both positively and negatively, and the ebb and flow of Immigration. Many Dis-placed people of Jewish/Non-Jewish Heritage had it tough. Where to go and what to do for themselves?
    The Congress was on FDR’s back… wanting “A Better Deal” and still critical of his work recovery policies. You had many dynamics going on that pushed him to the corner… be them good or bad judgement calls. it is difficult to say just how much “The St. Louis Incident” was really his fault and/or a combination of faults by all involved. It would seem he tried to bring about a humanitarian solution… but to little or no avail, as we foresaw the eventual shadow of WWII on the horizon. No different than President Lincoln’s day on the issues of Slavery in America. The issue of Slavery was an after thought… the primary was ‘Stalemated Political Policy’ of a do nothing Congress that pre-existed before Lincoln and brought forth, ‘The American Civil War’… a variation of similar themes and policies that historically lead to eventual WAR and a particular group(s) or population(s) that were made an excuse for such tragic foolishness. No different then… and sadly, No different today.

  13. FDR fan

    So many opinions here are driven by assumptions that the American President has the power to do anything he wants. That wasn’t true in the 1930’s and it isn’t true now. Just ask President Obama about all things he can’t do because Congress won’t go along.

    Go back in time and remember that the Great Depression was going on at the time. Immigrants are never popular during a recession or depression because it is assumed that they will take jobs away from native born Americans. I’m sure anti-Semitism played into it as well. FDR didn’t create prejudice against Jews. However, he had to function in a climate where it existed. Congress was not likely to approve any special immigration law for Jewish people (whether they should have or not).

    Remember in 1939 before the war that there were no gas chambers, no mass starvation, and no big round up of Jewish people. All that came later, after the war started. The climate in Germany for Jews was bad, but no one imagined in 1939 that Hitler would conquer Poland, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and most of Eastern Europe. That sickening realization would take place after German panzers started rolling through most of Europe.

    Of course, in hindsight FDR and every world leader should have done much more to allow Jews to escape the clutches of the Germans. Hindsight is 20/20 though and to believe that FDR should have been able to see all this, that he could have acted alone (without Congress), and that other world leaders do not share this responsibility is beyond ridiculous.

    FDR’s actions–when viewed appropriately in June of 1939 (before the war started) were reasonable. Calling him names and making absurd allegations and insults only makes a poster look stupid.


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